Every morning, I grab my phone and brace myself for the dumpster fire that is this moment in history.

I sip my coffee (entirely unspiked with hard liquor), and I take a couple of deep breaths.

I’m preparing myself for some new tweet that announces a human rights crisis or a manufactured massacre or an alternative fact or an existential threat to Western democrazy–er, democracy.

Tweets like this:

Trump tweet villain not hero

And this:

And this:

Heroes being attacked

Or, hey – *sip of totally-not-alcoholic coffee* – how ’bout this:

Villains create heroes

So many villains.

And no Batman to be found.

That’s because there is no Batman. Instead, there are millions – billions – of heroes in waiting and, as we’ve seen over the last 3 weeks, heroes in action. Having witnessed the incredible transformations of previously “reluctant” folks into earth-shaking heroes, I can’t help but marvel at our ability to switch from living our daily lives for decades… only to suddenly go out into the world as active, battling heroes. You don’t have to have the same political views I have to marvel like I do at how people are answering this question:

Am I Going to Be a Bystander or a Hero?

This post is about being a Hero.

And because we’re in the world of copywriting, this post is specifically about how you can convince regular, everyday people – your prospects and customers – to be Heroes, even when they feel like they have little power or control over the course of events. This is the core of brand storytelling. Can you transform bystanders into heroes?

[Tweet “How to convince everyday people to be your brand’s heroes – by @wordweaverfree via @copyhackers”]

Because great copywriting isn’t just about persuading people to take action.

Any toddler can tell you that, with enough persistence and annoying shrieking sounds, they can persuade their worn-down parents to give them the freaking cookie. But you better believe those parents will put their foot down the next time. (Or at the very least tune out the whining.)

No, great copywriting is about inspiring people to take action.

The reluctant hero in copywriting: Dove Campaign

Really truly memorably great copy is about putting your prospect in touch with their dreams for a better life and a better world, without leaning into sentimentalism.

There’s nothing sentimental about this:

The reluctant hero in copywriting: Unicef Campaign

The copy you want to write – or to hire someone great to write for you – is about placing the power to make change in your prospects’ hands.

The reluctant hero in copywriting: Contently Campaign

It’s about showing customers and would-be customers that they are the answer to problems they want to fix. Why? Not because your product is great. Not because your solution is super.

But because they are the Hero of their life.

You’re just here to guide them and give them tools. Good Lord are you there to give them the tools:

The reluctant hero in copywriting: Nike Campaign

You’ve heard a lot about storytelling and copywriting, marketing and branding.

They’re indelibly intertwined. Now I’m going to show you:

How to Bring Out Your Most Reluctant Prospects’ Inner Hero (So They Rally Behind You)

You want to turn your visitor, reader, subscriber or customer into a hero for this reason: When it’s time for you to throw down the gauntlet and challenge them to take action, they will be in the position to take one fearless step closer to converting into a customer.

Authentically placing your customer in the role of Hero wins you their trust, loyalty, praise and advocacy.

But what does your-customer-as-hero look like?

When we think of a Hero, often the first picture that comes to mind is this or something like this:

What do we think heroes look like?


The hero we’re fed is someone who puts herself in harm’s way on behalf of another person or worthy cause.

Why doesn’t that feel right when we’re talking about our customers?

After all, they’re not putting themselves in harm’s way when they save 15% on car insurance with you. They’re probably not acting for the greater good when they buy your Big Kahuna Burger.

And, well, they’re not gonna shimmy into some skintight unitard and swing around tall buildings. People don’t do that. Not a single person marching in protest does so in a unitard. That’s not what heroes look like.

Here’s what’s wrong with the image above, other than the fact that she must be missing a few ribs: our image of a hero is the image that appears at the END of the story. Or at its climax.

What happens leading up to the heroic moment is just as important in the making of a Hero as the rescue. The whole hero’s journey. The path there. THAT’S where your customer lives his or her quiet life. So here’s a big takeaway. Before you can turn your prospect or visitor into a hero, you need to know two things about them:

Your Hero Needs an Origin Story and a Defining Moment

Know your customer’s origin story and defining moment to begin the process of moving them toward Hero status.

The origin story is where your customer comes from. The life they’re leading. 

Their defining moment is a moment of crisis or threat.

According to Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces:

“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.”

Let’s take Batman as an example.

Here’s his origin story: he was born Bruce Wayne, beloved only son of Gotham City socialites. Bruce was a carefree child who lived a life of privilege until the night his parents were killed in front of him. 

Then he had his defining moment: after his parents were murdered, Bruce Wayne vowed never to rest until Gotham was rid of crime. 

You might be thinking, “Okay, so all I have to do is create an origin story for my customer and come up with a defining moment to convince them that they’re a Hero by clicking the  ‘Buy’ button, and my job is done.”

Not so fast.

The creators of Batman were masterful storytellers, but they had the luxury of dealing with a fictional character who would bow to their creative whims.

As a copywriter, you get to deal with real life human beings. And when it comes to taking heroic actions, the average human is… well… messy.

The Problem with Real People as Heroes

In copywriting, origin stories are easy: they’re customer/user/buyer personas. All you need is competitive data and information on your current customers to come up with one. Yes, I know that sounds like I’m dramatically minimizing it. But this post is already a 20-minute read – instead of digging deeper right now, download this guide for later.)

So the origin story is something we can understand. With research.

But figuring out the defining moment?

That’s a bit more complicated.

Here’s why. First: a defining moment doesn’t necessarily turn someone into a Hero. It’s just the moment you become aware of a problem that you wish to solve. Second: your response to a defining moment may be vastly different from someone else’s. Witnessing his parents being murdered inspired fictional eight-year-old Bruce Wayne to begin a decade of intense physical training so he could fight crime. The same scenario played out in real life would most likely make an eight-year-old boy feel totally powerless and paralyzed in his ability to act.

That’s because most non-fiction / real human beings are “Reluctant Heroes.”

That is, the average joe is more likely to do nothing in the face of a threat than take action against it. 

Psychologist and Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo has been studying the inner workings of everyday heroics for over a decade. He established the Heroic Imagination Project, an initiative that translates findings in social psychology into tools that help people to act courageously in challenging situations in their lives.

Here’s what he has to say about reluctant heroes:

“…few people do evil and fewer act heroically. Between these extremes in the bell curve of humanity are the masses—the general population who do nothing, who I call the ‘reluctant heroes’—those who refuse the call to action and, by doing nothing, often implicitly support the perpetrators of evil.

So on this bell curve of humanity, villains and heroes are the outliers. The reluctant heroes are the rest. What we need to discover is how to give a call to service to this general population. How do we make them aware of the evil that exists? How do we prevent them from getting seduced to the dark side?”

Villains and heroes are the outliers. Everyone else is a reluctant hero.

Sounds like a pretty pessimistic take on humanity, right?

Except it’s not. Because the VAST majority of us – as in, probably everyone reading this post – has the capacity to be a hero. We’re just… reluctant. But there is a hero in each of us. And once we identify the forces that prevent people from acting the way they should, it’s easier to get them to step up instead of simply going along. But first we need to understand this:

Why People Don’t Step Up

Let’s say that you were walking down the street and noticed a strange man lying on the ground, doubled over in pain.

Would you stop to help or would you walk past him?

Don’t answer that yet: read on.

The Bystander Effect

In the 2012, a subway platform full of New Yorkers watched as a man was pushed into the path of an oncoming train and killed. No one made a move to help in the 30 to 90 seconds before the man met his death. A photographer for The New York Post snapped a photo of him as the man tried to climb his way out.  The news story made the cover of The Post and later became an emblem of the indifference of New Yorkers.

The subway killing follows in the the tragic footsteps of the 1964 Kitty Genovese case, in which a girl was stabbed to death within eyeshot of over 30 witnesses. At least with Kitty Genovese, two or three people attempted to help. But still – only two or three out of over 30?

Something’s not right here.

Were these people so used to the cruel, cold city that they didn’t even bat an eye when a fellow human being was in need of help?

Psychologists later explained the reason witnesses in such cases do nothing isn’t due to their urban landscape or even their lack of courage. It was due to a social phenomenon called the bystander effect

When there is an emergency, if people are in a group, the larger the group is the less likely it is that anyone will help. 

The reasons for the bystander effect are numerous, but here are a few ways people justify inaction:

  • Fear of harm, retribution or reprisal – “If I take action, it will cost me time/safety/money.”
  • Loss of privacy – “If I take action, it will bring unwanted attention to me/my family”
  • Fear of loss of relationship – “If I take action, they won’t like me anymore.”
  • Belief in insufficient evidence – “I can’t take action until I know for sure that this is a problem.”
  • Assumption that someone else will take responsibility – “Let someone else do something about this.”

How does that translate to copywriting? It means that, although social proof and herd behavior may bring people into your funnel, when they reach the point of the funnel where you want them to take action, you should treat them as individuals – not one of many in a large group.

[Tweet “To get visitors to take action, treat them like individuals, not one of many – by @wordweaverfree via @copyhackers”]

The bystander effect is one of the main reasons people don’t respond to non-profit fundraising appeals. Ever sit in the car during a public radio fundraising marathon and skip donating because you figure plenty of other listeners have it covered?

Bystander effect.

The bystander effect is also big reason why people don’t respond to customer surveys. How many times have you been asked by your favorite blogger or your coffee shop barista to fill out a survey and done nada? After all, they have plenty of other customers.

Bystander effect.

So how can we fight it?

The Antidotes to the Bystander Effect in Copywriting

Remember that defining moment I mentioned above? Yeah, it’s at the core of overcoming Bystander Effect. Here are three antidotes…

1) Make the Battle About Them

First of all, we need to make sure your prospect has a sense of responsibility.

Which means they need to feel singled out. Selected. Chosen.

If someone walks up to you, makes eye contact with you and asks you to help them, it’s a lot harder to ignore them or pass them by. It’s a lot harder to pass up that Defining Moment.

The same thing goes for copywriting: the more personalized the message, the more likely you are to engage your prospect.

According to MailChimp, segmented email campaigns sent to small, targeted groups get 94.7% more clicks than non-segmented campaigns.

So when you’re planning your next email campaign, for example, don’t be afraid to get personal:

  • Use the first name merge field
  • Create an email template that’s super-specific to the prospect’s job role/location/level of expertise/awareness
  • Reference a current event that impacts your prospect
  • Research their social media profile to find a point of commonality

Watch this tutorial on how to get your new subscribers to “self segment” – so you know who they are and can believably connect in a personal, relevant way.

You can do the same kind of hyper-personalization for social media ads, sales/fundraising letters, landing pages…the point is: Don’t play to the crowd. Play to the person.

2) Earn Their Empathy

According to psychologist Ervin Staub:

“active bystanders [that is, people who help in emergencies] tend to have heightened concern for the welfare of others, greater feelings of social responsibility and a greater commitment to moral values.”

Let’s break this down.

In order to get that public radio listener to donate, we need to appeal to their:

  • Concern for the welfare of others
  • Feelings of social responsibility
  • Moral values

Combined, do you know what these attributes make? A heaping pile of empathy. Once you trigger empathy in the human brain, you have yourself a Hero in the making. CalTech philosophy professor Stephen Quartz has observed that the clue to empathy:

“…lies in an evolutionarily recent part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex. It appears to measure how closely we recognize others as being like or unlike ourselves; we think of others along a gradient from those we love, to friends, to strangers. In the split-second decision to help, then, a meeting of eyes or a cry for help may evoke an intimate recognition of another’s suffering in our medial prefrontal cortex and spur us to an extraordinary act of heroism. In that moment, the ordinary moral brain becomes heroic by making the final link between empathy and altruism: to recognize another as oneself.

In other words, when we understand someone else’s pain or imagine ourselves in that person’s position, we’re more likely to take action.

And the best way to understand someone else is to hear their story.

3) Create a Relevant Story

When I say the word “story,” people often think of a long-form narrative with a beginning, middle and end. But stories can be told in a single word, when told well. Remember the news story about the man who was pushed and killed by a subway train?

Check out these two headlines and tell me which one tells a story that you care about:


Both of those headlines give the same information: the suspect in the subway murder has been charged. But the first headline places the focus on the emotions of the victim’s family, humanizing the victim, making the reader care about them. In other words, in the space of 10 words, the writer has appealed to your empathy.

Let’s take a look at some ways to create a story that will transform your customer from a bystander into a Hero.

[Tweet “1) make the battle about your customer, 2) earn their empathy and 3) tell a story #heroes #copywriting by @wordweaverfree”]

How to Cast Your Customer in the Role of Hero

People are filled with potential energy. If your brand can tap into that energy, it can compel all the reluctant heroes in your audience to act. So what can you do – practically – to start transforming your reluctant heroes into enthusiastic advocates and customers? Here are 4 questions to answer:

  1. What is about to change in your customers’ world?
  2. What can they do about it?
  3. What is at risk if they don’t take action?
  4. What is the best outcome for their world, including for themselves?

Those four questions read like the outline of a long-form sales page.

For good reason.

Sales happen – conversions happen – when your prospect has a powerful emotional reaction. When your prospect transforms. When your prospect turns into a hero. So let’s unpack those 4 critical questions (so you can use them in your business).

1) What is about to change in their world?

In times of change or crises, Heroes are born.

We’re seeing this with every act of protest and resistance against the new administration in the U.S.

After the Trump administration put a gag order on federal employees, the Badlands National Park Service began tweeting climate change facts as an act of defiance.

After the executive order was issued banning refugees and green-card holders from Muslim-majority countries, thousands of attorneys marched to airports across the country to fight for the rights of detained travelers.

But here’s the key to igniting the fire of outrage and action in these freedom fighters. In both situations, they are fighting for:

  • Something they care about
  • Something they have the power to stop/protect/rescue from/adapt to

These people are acting because they see a threat to American democracy that personally affects them (or that they personally can relate to) and that they know they have the power to prevent.

What’s at threat for your customer?

Take a look at this pop-up page from Greenpeace:

The reluctant hero in copywriting: Greenpeace Campaign

They’ve clearly defined the problem: the climate is at risk because there attacks on climate progress.

2) What can they do about it?

In the above landing page, it’s obvious what the prospect can do: DONATE TODAY

But the landing page has also described what that donation is doing: it’s defending people and the planet.

Elsewhere on the Greenpeace website, visitors are invited to take action through resistance:

The reluctant hero in copywriting: Anti-Trump Campaign

I love that the image is referencing a massive banner that Greenpeace activists deployed over the White House the week after the Inauguration.

In this landing page we have a call-to-action (“RESIST TODAY”) within a call to action (“Join the activists who delivers a message of love and progress…”) within a call-to-action (Huge banner that says “RESIST”). This is a powerful Defining Moment for anyone who feels passionate about fighting climate change deniers in Trump’s administration.

3) What is at risk if they don’t take action?

Sometimes you just have to spell out what’s at stake. Check out this landing page for Planned Parenthood’s political action website that explicitly states that women’s health is in danger:

The reluctant hero in copywriting: Planned Parenthood Campaign

The Anti-Defamation League also tells visitors what’s under threat and what they’re fighting for:

The reluctant hero in copywriting: ADL Campaign

And take a look at this to-the-point NAACP banner ad:

The CTA – “I’M IN” – is a perfect antidote to the bystander effect because it singles the visitor out.

4) What’s the best outcome for their world and themselves?

This is your opportunity to invite your prospect to envision themselves participating in their dream scenario, also known as future-pacing.

Planned Parenthood’s women’s healthcare center website takes a decidedly positive approach to appealing to potential donors, patients, and volunteers by offering a reassuring vision of their future:

And the ACLU illustrates exactly how members responded to Trump’s Muslim ban and what donor can expect: results.

Okay, so what if you aren’t running a non-profit or seeking to make social change?

Can you still appeal to your prospect’s inner Hero?


You can make a Hero out of anyone. The key is to appeal to their personal sense of justice, empathy, and responsibility.

Every interaction you have with your prospect is an opportunity to create a little story with them in which something is at risk and they have the power to help because they are uniquely qualified to do so.

Does that mean that YOU need their help? Not necessarily.

Your brand can play the role of their sidekick, their guide–even the adversary they need to vanquish in order to achieve their goal.

As Promised: Beer

When you’re thinking about writing copy for your brand, you can apply the principles of the “reluctant hero” to create a stronger emotional pull.

Alcohol advertisers have been doing it for decades.

Take a look at a few of these beer ads, all of which play to their target customer’s sense of heroism. The first is for Surly, where they’re casting the customer in the role of the altruist and themselves in the role of the civic-minded advocate:

This vintage ad from The Brewers’ Society depicts the target customer has the workaday Hero and a frosty mug as a hard-earned reward for a job well done:

Schlitz makes their beer out as the stand-alone in an industry full of cheap, less-than-virtuous beers. In the Camelot of beer, Schlitz is Guinevere and their customers Lancelot. They value purity and honor above all else, as legendary copywriter Claude Hopkins made clear in this ad.

This old-school Guinness ad shows a pint as a damsel in distress: it’s up to the customer to rescue it from the clutches of the crocodile’s jaws!

And one of my favorites: Anti-Hero targets itself to “all the ambivalent warriors who get the girl in the end.” And then they quote Han Solo. Who doesn’t want to be Han Solo?

The other day, I was in the car with my monster-obsessed five year old and he spotted a billboard for DoubleDog Double IPA by Flying Dog Ale.

Take a look at their packaging:

That’s right: it’s a vicious dog-faced demon in tighty-whiteys. It’s an illustration and quote by Ralph Steadman, he of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame.

“Mom,” my five-year-old said, “Why is that monster on that bottle?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Well, it’s called Double Dog, which is a kind of dare. So I think the people who made the beer are daring the customer to drink the beer.”

“Yuck, beer. Why would they want to make their beer scary?”

“It’s daring the customer to take a risk and be brave.”

“So monsters dare people to be brave?”

“Yes, bud. That’s why they exist. To bring out the courage in others.”

To which he replied, in his scary-wise-beyond-his-years way: “So, mom, monsters exist to make people into Heroes.”

Amazing what kids have to teach us about being Heroes.

So go forth, copy warrior, and vanquish the forces of human complacency with inspiring messages that shine a light in the darkness. May your words make Heroes of us all.